by Patrick Gustavson
With their regular season opener just a few days away, the Central Connecticut men’s basketball team will look to improve on what could be considered a disappointing past few seasons.
This is the second year under head coach Donyell Marshall, who led the team to a 6-23 record (4-14 in the Northeast Conference), the sixth straight losing season for the program.
On the surface, it appears the Blue Devils’ struggles could continue this season. They lost three key players to graduation: guard Khalen Cumberlander and forwards Tidell Pierre and Tafari Whittingham. Both Cumberlander and Pierre started all 29 games for the Blue Devils and were among the leaders in minutes. The presence of the three graduates will likely be missed mostly in the paint, as they accounted for nearly half of their rebounds per game.
That slack will have to be picked up senior forward Mustafa Jones, who was among the team’s leaders in the paint in 2016. Transfers Deion Bute, Joe Hugley and Tyler Kohl should also be contributors in that area, as well as center Harrison Kay who saw a fair amount of playing time in his freshman year.
Perhaps more troubling for the Blue Devils in 2016 was their scoring, or inability to do so. They ranked 336 in the nation in scoring offense, averaging just 63 points per game. The Blue Devils will retain shooting guard Austin Nehls, who has started all but one game in his CCSU career. He led the team in minutes and scoring in 2016, average 13.4 points a game.
The team will be pressing to find offense from other areas. Jones, who’s average score in 2016 was in the double digits, looks to be a contributor. Sophomore point guard Tyson Batiste will look to build on an exceptional freshman season where he scored consistently, facilitated and played strong perimeter defense.
A new reinforcement could be Kohl, who shined in his CCSU debut in an exhibition against Nyack, with 21 points while shooting 7-12 from the field, nine rebounds and five assists, propelling his team to a narrow victory.
Though defeating their DII opponent, the Blue Devils will need to improve their play to contend in the Northeast Conference. After a hot start, the offense went cold, trailing by five points at half. However, the team’s play improved enough on both offense and defense to where they could defeat the Warriors by a mere three points.
However, the team can’t ignore the status of their head coach, Marshall, who was suspended for the game against Nyack due to an ongoing investigation by the school. There has been no further information on the case. The Blue Devils would certainly benefit from the presence of their head coach.
From the outside looking in, the team’s prospects have not been cast in a positive light. In the NEC preseason coaches’ poll, they ranked ninth out of ten teams, ahead of only St. Francis (BKN). In a story penned by ESPN college basketball insider John Gasaway, in which he ranked all 351 DI teams, the Blue Devils were ranked in a less than flattering 339th, last among their conference foes.
If the Blue Devils want to prove their naysayers wrong, they will need to find a way to produce on offense, improve from the free throw line, and build a presence in the paint.
The beauty of playing in such a small conference is that anything is possible for qualifying for the NCAA tournament. The first task would have to be finishing in the top eight in the NEC in the regular season, which would make them eligible for the conference tournament. Though their chances of reaching the tournament may be slim, it would be an improvement from last season.